Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s design for the Pierre Chareau exhibit at the Jewish Museum introduces visitors to multiple ways of knowing the designer and his oeuvre. The exhibit engages our senses, imagination, intellect, and emotions in a choreographed sequence of mysteries and revelations. The designers deftly mixed new technologies with traditional display of objects, moving viewers through a series of experiences that changes pace from slow walking to pensive reading to twirling in their seats. Like good teachers, the designers offer information in multiple formats, addressing a variety of learning styles.
The visitor enters through a series of scrims on which outlines of furniture merge with flickering silhouettes of the inhabitants. We are invited into the history of Chareau’s interiors. Moving among the ghosts, we are transported to Paris between the World Wars. Rounding the scrims, the figures melt away, revealing the three-dimensional reality of the furnishings. We transition from feeling to knowing. We shift abruptly from a kinetic, monochromatic environment to a static presentation of sensuous materials, unified color palette, exquisite joinery, and a juxtaposition of luxurious finishes with industrial components. We see fixed forms that suggest dynamism and machine-like elements designed for action. The movements of the ghosts prepare us to understand the lived experience of these pieces. The exhibit designers astutely introduce us to the parts before the whole. The furniture and furnishings expose the tectonics and materiality that we will later recognize as the totality of Chareau’s masterwork, the Maison de Verre is revealed.
From the parts, we move to the whole; from the richly physical to the abstract; from the human scale of the furniture, to a set of drawings and models scaled to fit within our visual field. These objects draw us close and require careful study. The meticulous pen and ink drawings of the Maison de Verre, by Kenneth Frampton and students, offer up both knowledge and mystery. The private spaces of the house, in particular, defy easy understanding. We puzzle over the crisp lines of the plans, wondering how they translate into spatial volumes for human occupation and use.